Staff Picks: Beach Brain, Polychromatic Plumage


This Week’s Reading


From the cover of the Talk reissue.

In 1965, Linda Rosenkrantz summered in East Hampton—as one does, I guess—and had the good sense to bring a tape recorder with her. On the beach, she logged hours of her banal, brilliant conversations with two friends; in 1968 she published the transcripts as a novel, Talk, to be reissued next month. In many ways the book is as exasperating as you’d expect: Linda and her friends, all approaching thirty, seldom entertain thoughts beyond themselves or their coterie. They gossip about fucking and psychoanalysis; pubic dandruff is among their more elevated concerns. And there are moments when you can hear them ham it up for their imaginary audience, affecting even more weariness, intellect, and neurosis than they’ve already claimed. But who cares? Even at its most vapid, Talk captivates: it’s funny, honest, and not infrequently heartbreaking, and it still feels weirdly provocative almost fifty years later. The dialogue captures the sun-brained rhythm of beach talk better than anything I’ve read. —Dan Piepenbring

o-AMELIA-GRAY-900Amelia Gray’s last novel, Threats, was a weird and wonderful book set on the outskirts of reality. Her new story collection, Gutshot, is an episodic version of the same strange locale, one populated by a convulsive puker, a Brobdingnagian snake, and a couple who trap a woman in the air ducts of their house. It’s a place where “the sun beats the shit out of a dirty road called Raton Pass [and] the closet thing to a pair of matching earrings is a guy named Carl who punches you in the head with his fist.” The characters are all misfits of one kind or another, and they are dedicated to their stories even when they don’t seem to want to be a part of them. The title story (my favorite) reads like a shaggy-dog story, except that the ending is unexpectedly moving and meaningful. The membrane between Gray’s stories and our reality is often thin; it’s sometimes breached by a pinhole, as in “Viscera,” in which the skin flakes and spittle of a paper-factory employee drift into the pulp, “baking the genetic evidence of his future heart disease into this very page, which you are touching with your hands.” —Nicole Rudick

“What can I tell you, Mr. Investigator, about a crime committed in a book?” Kamel Daoud writes in The Meursault Investigation, his retooling of Camus’s The Stranger. Daoud turns Camus’s fiction into fact, implying that within his fictional world, The Stranger was penned by an unrepentant murderer and canonized nonetheless. Harun, the brother of the unnamed “Arab” killed by Camus’s narrator, goes off on a book-length barroom screed against the man who murdered his brother and has been all but exonerated by high school curricula across the globe. The novel contains a powerful critique of colonialism, but it’s also a brilliantly executed slap in the face to a literary-academic establishment that treats writers as celebrities and celebrates literature as “challenging” to avoid being challenged by it. (So now let’s all do the only reasonable thing and celebrate The Meursault Investigation.) —Rebecca Panovka

Lehrer-2Readers of the Daily who paid attention in chemistry class will probably remember Tom Lehrer—or at least the tune of his, “The Elements,” that allowed for one of the more humanizing moments in an often tedious grade-school science curricula. I recently revisited some of his work (“Vatican Rag” is a personal favorite) and afterward went off in search of his New Yorker profile—only to find, to my surprise, that it doesn’t exist. In fact, there’s been very little written about the man; BuzzFeed seems to have published one of his only profiles—and this for a prodigy who entered Harvard at the age of fifteen, achieved unlikely success with his darkly humorous and satirical music, and retired from touring in his early thirties, having sold hundreds of thousands of records. (Weird Al Yankovic, who claims Lehrer as one of his two living idols, has called him “the J. D. Salinger of demented music.”) If satire rings your bell, then run off and spend some time with his oeuvre. You won’t be disappointed—and you may, like Daniel Radcliffe, end up committing some of his spectacularly tedious lyrics to memory. —Stephen Hiltner

In a couple of weeks, I’ll set off for Charles Town—a small Maroon village in Portland, Jamaica—where I’ll attend the seventh annual International Maroon Conference. So it was with great pleasure that I found Nicola Lo Calzo’s photographs of the French Guiana and Suriname Maroons, introduced by Hilton Als, in the pages of this week’s New Yorker. For those less familiar, the Maroons are descendants of an insurgent group of slaves who built autonomous communities in rural pockets of Africa, South American, the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, Europe, and the U.S. “Obia,” Lo Calzo’s most recent project, looks inside Maroon culture today. Comprising the portfolio are some of the most vibrant photographs I’ve seen in a while: there’s one of a Ziploc bag holding an embalmed parrot, its polychromatic plumage a near-perfect rainbow; its body, according to Maroon tradition, is a vessel for spirits. But the photograph I’m most fond of is of a young Ndyuka woman wearing a Marilyn Monroe shirt with pink, floral shorts, fingernails painted to match, and the word swag hanging from her necklace. As Als attests, “Lo Calzo takes as his great subject the meaning that a photographer’s eye can draw from the African diaspora, all those disappeared bodies brought back to life by their living and breathing descendants.” See more of his work here. ­—Caitlin Youngquist

Hans Ulrich-Obrist, the manic Puck of the curatorial world, has been panned and praised alike for his omnivorous interests in interview subjects. A new compendium of his talks with modern musicians, A Brief History of New Music, aligns selected artists ranging from Boulez to Kraftwerk in an echo chamber, framing their responses around specific artistic loci. Obrist conjures questions like a pop-theoretical Magic 8 Ball: What of Duchamp’s comment that the spectator does at least 50 percent of the work? How about Bakhtin’s conception of Dostoyevsky’s polyphony? He’s especially fond of asking about artists’ “unrealized” or impossible projects—their “Kubla Khans.” Brian Eno describes the possibility of quiet clubs, or clubs “where nothing much happens.” Elliott Carter apparently wanted to write an opera about suicide cults like the Order of the Solar Temple. At its best, A Brief History is an antic, organic collection of esoteric and overlapping reflections, shaking loose digressive gems like a late-night conversation. —Casey Henry